Puff puff to West Africa is what beignets are to New Orleans. It's the all-encompassing fluffy, addicting, can-never-have-just-one, comfort food that we all love. This ball-shaped, deep-fried doughnut is a common breakfast and street food, and goes by many names across the West African diaspora: It is called togbei, bofrot or boflot in Ghana; kala in Liberia; beignet in Cameroon (though it's not the same as the French pastry); puff puff in Nigeria and Sierra Leone; mikate in the Congo; bofloto in the Ivory Coast, micate or bolinho in Angola; ligemat in Sudan; vetkoek, amagwinya and magwinya in South Africa and Zimbabwe; and mandazi on the Swahili Coast. Whatever you call it, this simple fried dough is a deeply comforting food typically made of flour, sugar, yeast, water and salt.
Which came first: the beignet or puff puff? Well, the consumption of fried dough can be traced back to ancient Rome and the beloved beignet dates back to the 17th century. The puff puff seems to have originated in the Netherlands, brought to the West African Gold Coast with the Dutch colonizers and adopted by my tribe, the Fante people, before rippling out across other parts of Ghana and West Africa, while the French colonizers brought their variations on it to the Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Senegal through occupation.
What is puff puff?
Walking through any market in Accra, Ghana — from Kaneshie to Nima — you would stop dead in your tracks after noticing a cauldron of hot oil with golden round balls of puff puff bouncing happily to their own rhythm. The bofrot women are everywhere and their technique is mesmerizing: the fast pinch and pull of dough, an agile flick of the wrist and an elegant thumb squeeze of dough that plops into the oil before being wrapped in newspaper for you to enjoy as you shop. It’s magic to behold. When you bite in, the first texture you meet is the shiny, crispy fried casing before the airy, cloud-like inside.
While it's typically a street food, puff puff is also cooked regularly for breakfast with koko (a fermented corn breakfast porridge) and coffee. It is also a staple of the pre-dinner appetizers or "small chops" we eat at celebrations across many West African households. Puff puff is a go-to crowd-pleaser. The truth is you can eat it at any time of day, as breakfast, side or on-the-go snack.
One of the beauties of puff puff is in its economy — it’s few rudimentary, low-cost ingredients mean it is as cheap and easy to make as it is delicious, hence its widespread popularity.
Like a beignet or doughnut, the main ingredients are flour, water and a dough-leavening agent such as yeast or, very traditionally, palm wine. Once the batter is created, the dough is dropped in hot oil and fried until golden-brown using a drop scone method. It's common to see egg-free versions in the north and central regions of Ghana, which are less fluffy and crispy.
How to make puff puff
Puff puffs are made with a yeasted dough, by foaming the fresh (or dry) yeast in warm, sweetish liquid (milk or water), then kneading a firm dough and letting it rise over a few hours or even overnight. Typically, you'd mix together flour, yeast (or baking powder), sugar, salt, water, butter and eggs (butter and eggs are optional), and deep-fry in vegetable oil to a golden-brown color. Once the dough has doubled in size, it’s ready to be portioned (recommended for large-batch cooking); simply allow the dough to rest for a further 30 to 60 minutes before frying).
To fry like an auntie, you can pinch pieces of dough around the size of small plums and squeeze between your thumb and forefinger into the hot vegetable oil, or to fry like an oburoni (foreigner), you can simply use an ice cream scoop to portion. In a few short minutes, the dough should rise to the top and bounce; while it is bouncing, turn the puff puff to get an even color and use a slotted spoon to remove from the oil. Place on kitchen paper to drain and repeat. That's it. So simple it's sinful.
After frying, puff puffs, much like beignets, can be rolled in flavored sugar; my go-to toppings are cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg. Puff puff can be eaten plain, served with a dipping sauce or filled with a jam or sauce or with anything else your imagination can dream up. This is a versatile dish that will satisfy cravings on any occasion. The beauty about puff puffs is that can eat it sweet or savory. It's a truly great snack, appetizer, or dessert. Try out my recipe for puff puff — and don't be afraid to get creative with this West African favorite.
- 10½ ounces plain flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3½ ounces caster sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/8 ounce powdered hibiscus (optional)
- 1/4 ounce (7 grams) active yeast
- 6½ fluid ounces (just over 3/4 cup) warm water
- 1¾ pints vegetable oil for deep-frying
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1½ ounces sugar
Mix flour, salt, caster sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and powdered hibiscus in large, wide bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over the top of the dry mixture, then add the warm water and let sit for 5 minutes without stirring or disturbing, during which time bubbles should begin to appear as the yeast starts working.2.
At this point, mix together well then cover with cling film or beeswax and leave to rise in a warm place for 1 to 2 hours or until the batter has doubled in size.3.
Heat the oil in a deep-fat fryer (the safest option) or heavy-based, deep saucepan filled to just under half the depth of the pan to 325 F. Test the temperature of the oil with a small drop of the batter — it should slowly rise to the surface and brown slowly.4.
Using the drop scone method, drop a few separate tablespoonfuls of the batter into the hot oil and fry for 2 minutes or until golden-brown, then turn each puff puff over and fry until evenly dark golden-brown all over.5.
Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Repeat with the remaining batter. Combine the sugar and cinnamon for coating on a wide, deep plate then roll the puff puff around the plate to coat them in the mixture.6.
Serve warm or at room temperature on their own or with clotted cream if you have it!